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The strange voyage of the ghost fleet

Mallows Bay, MDPhoto credit: Andrew Propp

On the Maryland side of the Potomac, in the rural community of Nanjemoy, you'll find a sheltered cove called Mallows Bay. The sandy bluffs and dense stands of ash and pine resemble many other quiet spots along the river. But there's something in the water: the largest ship graveyard in North America.

How'd it get there? Well, in the final years of World War I, the Allies found themselves short on sea-power: German submarines had taken a heavy toll. With ample timber reserves, Americans hit on a plan to make up the losses by building hundreds of wooden steamships. The U.S. government doled out contracts, and a building frenzy ensued.

But the war ended sooner than expected, leaving officials with the peculiar problem of what to do with its unused (and now unwanted) armada. Riding at anchor in Widewater, Virginia, the hastily assembled fleet posed a hazard to shipping traffic and a nuisance to fishermen, so the decision was made to move most of the ships across the river to the secluded Mallows Bay.

Mallows Bay, MD"Seen from the air," writes historian Donald Shomette, "some of the hulks looks like giant flowerpots. Over the years, trees have taken root in the earth inside the hulls, and these strange islands are not at all unattractive."Photo credit: Andrew Propp

The fleet—and the Mallows Bay property itself—changed hands through a succession of salvage companies that tried everything to get rid of the ships: sinking them, beaching them, burning them, burying them, and taking them apart nail by nail. No one managed to turn much profit or to finish the job—and in the process of trying, they made a junkyard of the once pristine river cove.

But in the decades that followed, writes historian Donald G. Shomette, nature took its course."The years rolled by and the battlefield contours of Mallows Bay softened, as wind-borne seeds took root in the rich, soil-filled holds of burnt-out ships, as creatures large and small began to return, as the green chain of life was slowly reforged." 

By the time anyone expressed serious interest in cleaning out the bay, it no longer made much sense to do so. An Audubon Society representative testified in 1970 that the wrecks "have been there for so long—nearly half a century—that it is inconceivable that they are not an integral part of the ecosystem." In the end, regulators decided that removing them would cause more harm than good.

Mallows Bay, MDKayakers must take care to avoid hazards beneath the surface, but the reward for careful paddling is an up-close look at the ships possible only from the water. Photo credit: Andrew Propp

And so they remained.

In the 1990s, archaeologists undertook an extensive survey of the wrecks—which turned out to include, in addition to the wooden fleet, everything from modern car ferries to Revolutionary era longboats. In 2002, The Trust for Public Land at last protected the Mallows Bay property for the state of Maryland, and earlier this month the site was nominated for status as a National Marine Sanctuary.

Most importantly, Mallows Bay is yours. So if you find yourself in Washington, D.C., all done with city sightseeing and in the mood to get outdoors, consider renting a kayak and driving south. From the park's boat launch or put-in, point your prow toward the wreckage for a view of a different kind of monument: one with some interesting things to say about human plans and natural resilience. Above you, you'll find ospreys, egrets, and herons. Below you, the Baxley and the Aspenhill, the Grayling and the Musketo—still decomposing slowly in the mud.


Gary H
Great story. Would never know of this mysterious place otherwise!
David Barr II
Cool a part of history Leave it along don't go doing anything to it for it stands for lots of meanings & reasons.
Aloysius Wald
Fascinating bit of lost history that you can actually visit. Thanks for the information and the future destination.
Neal Umphred
Thanks you. I always enjoy learning something about which I knew nothing. A follow-up piece on how the local non-human critters have used the hulks as part of their ecosystem would be interesting.
Howard McCoy
How cool is that?!! Great story. Don't you just love happy endings?
As a Marylander, this is such a cool piece of history! Never even knew/heard anything about this!!! Thank you!!!!
Cynthia Sloan
Excellent find, I can't wait to visit! Thanks so much for preserving what we love!
Nancy Charlton
Seems to me that these ships could have been recycled. Plenty of localities in the USA could have used small ferries. Some could have been converted to barges or freight haulers on the rivers and in islands.
Dave Wright
These vessels are the end product of a massive emergency shipbuilding program cut short at the end of World War One. While they probably could have made useful barges, etc., at the time there was a glut in floating tonnage, which is why many of them went straight from the builder to being laid up in back harbors until they were dismantled. Also, most of these vessels were far too large to have become inter-island ferries or freight haulers, most of which have traditionally (at least in the Tidewater and Chesapeake) been built for the purpose in local shipyards that knew the requirements and vicissitudes of the region.
Thank you for sharing this story. I found it very interesting.
Merle Cole
Before you go, recommend reading Don Shomette's excellent 1996 boon on the subject. Well illustrated and informative.
Virginia Nelson
I never knew of this, until now, thank you for letting us know, I do not live close to the Mallow Bay but it is sad that they didn't try to fix it or destroy them.
A spellbinding look at a generally unknown remanent of war left abandoned. Thank you for remembering and presenting it to us.
C. W. Coleman
Nice to hear of a NICE message, for a change. Thank you, provider! Often wondered how many newer "moth ball fleets" we have. How many & kinds of ships, all maintained by our forward thinking gov't, and how many days are allowed to get them 'ready for action'? I saw incredibly massive fleet, on a bus tour to Williamsburg, VA, area.

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